1% of Europeans Know Anything About Korea
LONDON ― In November 2004 I collaborated with Bill Rylance, the regional CEO of Burson-Marsteller, the global public relations agency on a presentation for some senior Korean businessmen hosted by the American Chamber of Commerce Korea. The title of the speech was ``Korea Misperceived?''
The key issue under discussion was Korea's weak national brand and how it appeared to be disconnected with the country's undoubted success in exports, information technology, popular culture and sport ― just to name a few areas of internationally recognized Korean achievements.
I'd suggest that in the intervening four years not much has fundamentally changed. Korea's image overseas still seems to trail behind other countries. And the perceptual gap between Korean winners in so many areas along with an under-powered national brand continues.
Why is this so? Does it matter? And how can Korea's image overseas be improved?
President Lee Myung-bak recently announced a plan to establish a committee to raise the country's brand value under the presidential office. In a speech to commemorate the 60th birthday of the Republic of Korea in Seoul, he pledged to ``upgrade the national brand to make it on par with that of advanced countries.''
Let's be clear that national branding or location marketing is not the same as nationalism or national pride. Brand Korea is about what foreigners think of Korea and
how those perceptions affect their behavior in key business areas such as tourism and investment.
First of all some basic theory about national branding:
Nations these days need to compete on hard, quantifiable issues; exports, inward
investment and inbound tourism.
Each nation promotes its culture, history and values, projecting an idealized but recognizable idea of itself.
Nations now frequently adopt the marketing and branding techniques used
successfully by many global companies.
``Products can be discontinued, modified, withdrawn from the market, re-
launched and re-positioned or replaced by improved products. Countries do not have most of these choices. Their image problems may be founded in structural
problems that take years to fix.'' Professor David Gertner, Lubin School of
Business, at Pace University New York City.
So following the logic of treating nations as commercial brands, it's natural that each territory will play to its strengths. The most visible instance of this is smaller or emerging countries that heavily depend on tourist income to maintain economic growth and create new jobs. Thus we're all familiar with global advertising campaigns and tourism events associated with such countries as Thailand, Malaysia, New Zealand, South Africa and India. The simple objective here is to attract more overseas visitors and maximize expenditure during their stay.
Similarly there are countries that are extraordinarily successful in stimulating inward investment: China is the prime Asian example but smaller markets such as Hong Kong and Singapore also regularly attract disproportionate numbers of overseas companies and direct inward investment (FDI) as a result of effective destination marketing programs.
Korea's export performance is without question world-class and a solid driver of economic growth in the last three decades. However does the success of Korean products sold abroad depend on them being Korean? Many Koreans would like to think that it does but actually the evidence points the other way.
As Korean cars, consumer electronics and white-goods continue to grow market-share and brand equity in major world markets, it's clear that local consumers in these markets are largely unconcerned or even oblivious to the country of origin. And really it doesn't matter; globalization is the key trend in today's world economy and in competing successfully some Korean companies have become true multinationals irrespective of their Korean roots.
However the other KPIs (key performance indicators) for Brand Korea are more sensitive to overseas perceptions and what is called "country risk". Tourists will only
come to Korea if they're persuaded that the experience will meet their expectations and price bracket. Similarly foreign investors will have a strict list of requirements to be met before putting money into Korean businesses.
Judged by these twin KPIs of in-bound tourist revenues and inward investment (FDI), Brand Korea hasn't done that well in spite of success in many other areas, and not least, the so-called Korean Wave (hallyu) of popular culture that swept across the rest of Asia a few years ago.
I would argue that success in tourism and FDI is strategically important for a developed economy. Moreover, if Korea wants to cast off its insular reputation and nurture new value-added business sectors, particularly in services, then attracting more overseas visitors and foreign companies (FDI) is of vital importance. So in that sense Brand Korea does matter very much and there's a strategic business case to justify investing in it.
So what are the challenges in building a more durable and effective Korean national brand? From a foreigner's perspective and going back to the earlier theory of national branding: Korea doesn't have an easily recognizable or very up-to-date brand.
A recent public opinion poll on Korea conducted by ORC, a U.S. research agency, at the request of the Korean Traders Association, indicated that only 1 percent of Europeans knew anything about Korea, 3 percent in US and 23 percent in Japan.
The grim legacy of 20th century history and the growing pains of an emerging market have a major part to play in this misperception of Korea but in its contemporary guise Brand Korea has not played to its strengths. Its self-image is often too introspective and hard to differentiate through foreign eyes.
For example, many things that are dear to Koreans such as local food and traditional folk culture, do not strike an immediate chord with overseas audiences. To be honest, how Koreans see themselves is the wrong starting point for a global national brand re-positioning but this fundamental error repeats itself and is a tragic waste of money.
This miscommunication is often down to lack of overseas research and an absence of the meticulous preparation needed to properly drive effective Brand Korea programs. And typically in past campaigns there have often been ``too many cooks'' or unqualified decision-makers whose perspective is overly subjective and parochial.
Let's not under-estimate the difficulties in adequately funding and rigorously implementing effective national brand communications ― be it advertising, public relations, word-of-mouth, events, promotions etc.
Branding is all about differentiation, which is achieved through positioning.
(Where does Brand Korea stand in relation to other similar countries?)
Location marketing involves multiple stakeholders, often with competing interests.
Unlike product branding, location branding is seldom under the control of a
central authority and budget-holder.
Measuring the effectiveness of location marketing is fraught with difficulties but possible given clear objectives and agreed KPIs.
After its near-death experience in the financial turmoil of the late 1990's Samsung aggressively re-structured itself. One of the key components of that eventual
transformation was textbook-style brand marketing. The process of transition from legacy marketing habits at Samsung was no doubt painful but the results have been spectacular and lucrative. Countries can't behave like companies or brands but they can learn from them.
To build an effective Brand Korea, the resulting communications programs needs to be highly strategic, properly funded and consistently visible in key global markets over several years. And above all, it's not about slogans or token gestures for domestic
audiences. It's about understanding and changing perceptions overseas.
Perceptions drive attitudes
Attitudes drive behavior
Behavior drives results
The basic point of nation branding is to be proactive in getting your message out to the wider world. Better performance on the key indicators of in-bound tourism and inward investment (FDI) will derive from effective overseas marketing of Korea. A successful and profitable Brand Korea will be predicated on the success of these communications programs over several years.